Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Clicker alternatives and a New Year's wish.

Classroom response systems, aka clickers, are a great way to provide some interaction and student-centeredness to a large lecture hall class. Even in smaller classes, these systems can provide useful feedback to both instructor and student as well as providing stimulus for discussions. They are expensive though, and I always have my eye out for alternatives. Recently I've found two that can be had for free, but with major limitations.

The first is from Microsoft. They have developed the Interactive Classroom for Powerpoint plug-in, available as a free download It seems like a well designed system. Instructors can put questions up right on a Powerpoint slide, start and stop when the question is open for responses, and immediately display results. You can even spontaneously pop up questions on the spur of the moment. There are two limitations, on the instructor side it only works with the latest Windows version of Powerpoint, 2007. The second limitation is that all the respondents must be connected to the network, and have Microsoft OneNote installed. OneNote is bundled with the version of office available to our students, but except in our Windows teaching labs, and maybe some classes in the College of Business, it's far from likely that every student in a class would have a Windows computer available.

A more likely scenario which uses devices almost all students have in their possession, is Poll Everywhere. The instructor side is entirely web based, so you can use it on either a Windows or Macintosh. On the response side, you can use any device that can access the web, via a web page or Tweet, and also regular phone text messages, a modality dear to the heart of college students. Between laptops, notebooks, smart phones, iPod Touches, iPads, and regular cell phones, almost every student would likely have some device that could respond. Each individual question is set up as a poll, but you can group polls and move from one to another rather easily. You can choose to view a "static chart" that just displays the possible answers and the codes needed for submitting, and when you've received all the responses, switch to a "live chart" which displays the results. Polls can be embedded in a Powerpoint slide. The big limitation with Poll Everywhere is that it's only free with up to 32 respondents. There are paid plans that allow up to 1000 respondents per poll, but they're not exactly cheap. $399 per semester for each instructor. (This would actually be cheaper than we're paying now for eInstruction's CPS System). There are also plans where each student subscribes for $14 apiece for a semester for each class.

It should be noted that there are some features available in the classic clicker systems not available on these. The most noticeable one is that it is not recorded who responded to what. You get the interactive benefits in class, but lose the ability to track how students are doing, as well as using it as a way to record attendance. The other issue is the question of whether every student would have a compatible device, and if that were a basic free cell phone, a text messaging plan that wouldn't cost them extra to use it.

It would really be great if someone created an open source solution for this. It seems like it would be within the capabilities of the Plone content management system which we use on our campus, although it would probably require some special scripting or workflows to make it workable. (You know who I'm talking to here).

The system would probably have to be web based. Eliminating text message responses would reduce the universality as with Poll Everywhere, but I think it would still have a lot of application. For example, in our College of Nursing, all students are required to have a smart phone, and in several nursing classes I've been in recently, every student had a laptop open (following the instructors Powerpoint, I might add). I'd be willing to bet it's not unusual to see College of Business classes where everyone had a laptop, netbook, ipad or smart phone, and likely upper division science courses too. And keep in mind, the price of admission here would be as low as a refurbed iPod touch, which college kids could also find lots of other uses for, and who knows how cheap Android devices will get. If the system was free otherwise, and lots of instructors adopted, I'd bet it would encourage students to get some kind of device to make use of it.

The basic system would consist of a series of one question polls. A sophisticated Plone user could probably rig this up without special scripting, but to make it widely applicable, I think some special tools to simplify it would be necessary. The nature of the questions would primarily be multiple choice, but numerical entries and text entries would be useful too. The Instructor would have to be able to move to a particular question (from a menu maybe), make it active to receive input from users, and stop it from being active. When they had received all the input, they would then display the results, perhaps as a graph or a histogram in the case of numerical answers (This would be a great way to demonstrate a normal statistical distribution).

On the client side, you'd probably want to strip it down to all but the essentials needed to vote, since you might have as many as 200 users logged into the wireless network. If the users were on mobile devices a special CSS for them could do the trick, but I'm not sure how you'd do it for regular laptop users, maybe having one display for the page owner, and a different simpler display for the rest of the world. It would be great if they didn't have to move to a different page to go to a new question, that is, it would just update as the instructor moved to a new question.

I'm sure Plone stores survey results, so the instructor could later review how the class did, but it would probably be difficult to track who voted how without creating an account on Plone for each student. I'm not sure how much this would clog up the server, but we spend enough on conventional clickers that it would probably be worthwhile for a specific Plone server just for this purpose to be set up and connect it to the LDAP server.

If this could be set up as a Plone "product," I'm sure we could see some widespread use of it around the country, and it would probably be a sure conference presentation, and of course it would be the ultimate of cool.

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